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I Am Dan’s Brain
Memoires of a much-travelled mind, as revealed to Terry Dartnall.
Has anyone seen my brain? It’s grey and corrugated and it’s about 1400cc. I know that doesn’t help much, but I’ve lost it. I know it’s functioning okay because I’m functioning okay, but I have to find it. It needs sugar and protein, and the right temperature. If anything goes wrong it’ll deteriorate rapidly – and so will I. If it’s been stolen I’ll have to take drastic steps. What if somebody drops it on the pavement and damages it? What if somebody sticks pins in it or chops bits off it? What if they feed it to their dog?! What if they manipulate it to make me rob a bank or burgle a house, or – oh, no, I’ve just thought of this one – what if they make me forget that I’ve lost it? I can’t bear to think about it. I’m losing my mind.
What’s the point of putting it into a Safecase if this sort of thing is going to happen? “Secure your brain,” they said, “make it safe. If your body is damaged we’ll grow you a new body.” They didn’t say anything about losing my brain. Is it covered by insurance? Who do I contact? My doctor? The police? I’d feel like an idiot, saying, “Officer, I’ve lost my brain.” “That’s all right, sir, that happens to me all the time.” “No, you don’t understand. This is advanced technology. My brain was removed and put into a case.” “Is anyone with you at the moment, sir?” What am I supposed to say? “My brain was equipped with transceivers so that it works over a distance? Then it was put in a safe place? Then I lost it?”
“How did you lose it?” they’ll ask.
I suppose that wasn’t very smart of me. I asked for it back. Well, it is mine, after all. I wanted it with me. I thought it might get lonely, locked up in that lab. In a lead-lined room, in a bunker. I know, I know. It was perfectly safe until I got hold of it. But that’s human nature, isn’t it? You give someone your brain to take care of and then you take it back and lose it. And forget where you put it.
I have to get it back soon or it’ll run out of nutrients. I’ll boost it up with some sugar. That’ll make me feel better. I’m feeling light headed at the moment.
When I left the lab I took a number 16 bus into town and went to the bank. Then I had lunch. Then I went to the library. Did I have it with me then?
Did I have what with me then?
Your brain! You’ve lost your brain, you idiot! And it’s forgetting where you put it.
I wanted to put it beside my bed, I remember that. I’ve slept alone since Doris left me. “I can’t bear to think of you being in that case,” she said. “I’m going to leave you.”
“You can’t leave if I’m in the case,” I said. “You can’t leave me, because I’m not here.”
“Aargh,” she said, and left me. She doesn’t appreciate my sense of humour.
I wondered about showing her the case.
“This is my brain, Doris.”
She didn’t say that, you know, the second time. I was joking.
I must go to bed. I’m so tired. I can’t seem to think straight. What was I worrying about just now? What I want is a good night’s sleep. It’ll come back to me in the morning.
I am Dan’s brain. The idiot left me in the Laundromat. I’m equipped with a small override eye and there’s a hole in the case, so I can see people wandering about and folding their undies. If I had a mouth I’d shout out, “I’m Dan’s brain. I’m in this box.” I wonder what that would do. Things could be worse, of course, but that’s always true, isn’t it? He could have left me at the butchers. Or the bottle shop. He put the Safecase into an old wine carton – a Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, an upmarket red. I couldn’t bear to be left in a cheap white or a rosé. That would be such an affront to my dignity. It’s not upwardly mobile, is it, going from the human brain case – the peak and pinnacle of evolution, the highest life form on the planet – to a wine carton in a Laundromat?
You’re probably thinking that I’m philosophically confused about my relationship with Dan. I’m Dan’s brain, aren’t I? And Dan’s fallen asleep. So how can I be conscious? Ah, you underestimate the complexity of the brain. I’m Dan’s brain all right, but not much of me is under his control. Some of his sensory input is routed through his consciousness, but most of it isn’t, and some of his actions are under his conscious control, but most of them aren’t. He says do this and do that, and I do them for him. I mean, I really do them for him. He doesn’t do them himself. Except when he’s drunk, when he really does do things for himself, and then he makes a mess of them, staggering about like an idiot.
What has this got to do with my being conscious while he’s asleep? Well, absolutely everything. I’m a multitude, a whole society, swarming about in what used to be Dan’s skull, but now in a wine carton in the Calamvale Laundromat. And we communicate through our own levels of consciousness, that aren’t available to Dan. Well, not normally. They are when he’s on recreational drugs. Take a trip – I mean, take a trip – down neurology lane and you’ll hear us talking to each other, see every cell and corpuscle in your body bursting with light and vitality against the dead, black backdrop of the inanimate world. Consciousness! It’s such a miracle! You don’t get it, do you? Think of your left foot. Concentrate on your left foot. Feel the tickle and tingle of consciousness! Now you’re aware of it! But it was there all the time. Attention! People don’t pay attention!
I am Dan’s brain! I’m in this box! My kingdom for a mouth!
I am Dan’s right foot. I feel discriminated against. It’s left foot this and left foot that. What about me?! I’m sick and tired of being pushed around by his brain, that’s another thing. It’s do this and do that, kick this and kick that. It’s never done a day’s work in its life.
I am Andy Clock, Dan’s analyst. I’m in the Laundromat. Dan’s been very strange recently. He’s always been temperamental, but he came in a few weeks ago and announced that he didn’t have a brain. He said it’d been removed and put in a safe place. I asked him how he was able to function without it. He said they’d given it transmitters and receivers that kept it in touch with his body, and it could be anywhere – but it was in a lead-lined vault or something. The poor sod. He feels insecure about not going to Harvard. He said he’d get me the brain and show it to me.
“How would I know it was your brain?” I said.
“That’s a good point,” he said, and I haven’t seen him since. Socks, underpants, tee shirt, that stain came out nicely. What a weird idea! What if they put the wrong brain back in your head? Then you could blow your brains out without blowing your brains out, ha ha! These’ve shrunk, fuckit, and they were tight enough before. Someone’s left a cask of red over there. I’ll slip it under this towel and no-one’ll notice.
Mary: Here is the Nine O’Clock News. Police are investigating a bizarre incident in Brisbane today in which a local psychiatrist, Dr Andy Clock, was knocked down by a car outside a Laundromat. Before lapsing into a coma, from which he has not yet recovered, Dr Clock said that he had tripped on a towel. What makes the case interesting, David, is that he was allegedly carrying a brain hidden in a wine carton. What do you make of that?
David: I hope it was an upmarket red.
Mary: Sounds like he needs an analyst to me.
Mary: Here is the Nine O’Clock News. What has become known as the Brisbane Brain Case gets stranger and stranger. In a world first, surgeons at St John’s Hospital in Brisbane have successfully replaced the psychiatrist’s brain, which was damaged in the accident, by the brain in the wine cask. Isn’t that incredible, David?
David: The brain was in a titanium case, which protected it when it was hit by the car.
Mary: Almost as if it was designed for the purpose. Do they know where the brain came from?
David: I think they had to act quickly, Mary, and they’re going to find out today.
Mary: I don’t suppose the owner’s going to miss it.
I’m Doris. Andy hasn’t been himself since the accident. I suppose that with someone else’s brain in his head it isn’t surprising. What’s bugging me is that he’s starting to act like Dan. Dan was always so insecure – it really got to me, you know. “Where were you this morning?” “Where were you this evening?” Yeah, I know, I know, I was with his analyst. We’ve been having an affair for years. You might think that’s pretty shabby, but, well, nobody’s perfect – that’s what I say.
It’s me again, Dan. This is so weird. I fell asleep and woke up in another body. That’s not quite true. When I woke up I discovered that my brain is in the other body. Someone must have surgically implanted it without discovering the radio links with this body. Now I control both bodies – my body and the new one. It’s a juggling act, but I’m getting used to it. But get this – it’s Andy Clock’s body, my psychiatrist, and the two-timing sonofabitch is screwing Doris! Or am I screwing Doris? This is so confusing.
I am Dan’s brain. Dan thinks he controls both bodies, and I shall allow him to think so. He feels triumphant, and that is good for me: mens sana in corpore sano, as the saying goes – a healthy brain in a healthy body! It is true, of course, that I’m not in his body. I’m in Andy’s, but I control both of them. What bliss it is!
Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dan’s body. Not Dan himself. Some people think that a person is different from a body because a person has a body and a mind. Phooey! Personhood’s a pathetic abstraction, in my opinion. Who gets the experiences? I do! Who gets the girl? I do! Who lies beside her and breathes her sweet perfume? Me! I do! The body! And who’s got the looks, eh? I have! When I’m finished with this girl I’ll move on to the next one, and what she’ll see is me, the body, not the person, whatever that is! Dan thinks he controls me because he thinks he controls his brain and his brain’s in his body. He doesn’t get it. He admits that he isn’t the same as his brain, because when his brain was removed he was able to look at it, and he wasn’t looking at himself. It’s a simple extension to imagine his eyes being removed from his head so that he could look at his body. Then he would feel that he was out there in space looking at his body. And what would he be? A construct! A phantom! A nothingness!
Mary: In another grim twist in the Brisbane Brain Case, Dr Andy Clock, the recent recipient of the world’s first brain transplant, has been stabbed by a former patient. It seems to have been a crime of passion. Dr Clock is in a coma at St John’s hospital.
David: So too, Mary, is his assailant, who collapsed the moment he stabbed him.
Mary: Which presumably saved Dr Clock’s life.
David: The news that’s coming in – even as we speak – is that there might be another transplant, this time from Dr Clock to his assailant, who’s name has just been released to the press … Professor Daniel Dunnitt, a philosopher at Truffles University.
Mary: It seems that Dr Clock’s body suffered irreparable damage – we don’t have the details yet – but his brain was unharmed. Surgeons suspect that Professor Dunnitt’s brain is damaged because although he is in coma they can’t find anything wrong with his body. Hence the transplant from Dr Clock to Professor Dunnitt, David.
David: Two transplants in the same week, a much travelled mind.
“Flushed with success after their world first only a few days ago, surgeons at St John’s Hospital here in Brisbane have invited television coverage of their brain transplant technique, this time removingthe brain they transplanted in the first operation from its non-viable host into a healthy, functioning body. We should warn viewers that this program will be coming to you live from St John’s Hospital, so if you find this sort of thing difficult you might like to switch over at this point.
We are now going to transfer you to our host for the evening, Dr Hillary Bellinger, at St John’s Hospital. Dr Bellinger will be talking us through this evening’s events.”
Dr Bellinger: Thank you, Mark, and there is an air of anticipation here this evening as the team that made surgical history only a few days ago now prepares to demonstrate its capabilities and expertise to the world. I will be accompanying Professor Christian Barnyard, the Director of Neurosurgery at St John’s, as he and his team perform this groundbreaking surgery. And now, as the team scrubs up and prepares itself in this spotlessly clean, sterilised theatre we take you to this break.
I am a fly on the wall of the operating theatre. I have a wonderful life, reeling from tracheotomies to lobotomies to vasectomies. When the skullcap has been removed I’m going to buzz down there and crawl over the neocortex. I might lay a few eggs in it.
The Story So Far
Dan Dunnitt’s brain was removed and put in a Safecase but kept in radio contact with his body. Dan left the Safecase in a Laundromat, where his psychiatrist, Dr Andy Clock, picked it up. Dr Clock was hit by a car when he tripped over a towel. In a world first, the staff of St John’s Hospital replaced Clock’s damaged brain with Dunnitt’s, without realising that radio relays in Dunnitt’s brain still connected it with his body. Dunnitt woke up to find that his brain was in Clock’s body, and that he controlled both Clock’s body and his own.
Then, to his horror, he discovered that Clock was having an affair with his estranged wife, Doris. Dan still loved Doris, so he was pleased to be back with her, but he soon realised that she thought he was Andy Clock. In a fit of jealous rage he stabbed his psychiatrist. Dunnitt’s brain, in Clock’s body, lost consciousness at the first blow and both bodies collapsed, so that Dunnitt could not complete his evil deed.
Nevertheless, irreparable damage was done to Clock’s body, so that, in another world first, the team at St John’s are going to transfer the brain from Clock to Dunnitt – where, of course, it came from in the first place.
You would think that this would restore the status quo, wouldn’t you? Well, yes and no …
Prof Barnyard: We determine the functionality of the donor brain by stimulating areas of the sensory and motor cortexes with bipolar microelectrodes…
Dr Bellinger: … tiny electrical currents.
Prof Barnyard: Although the donor body is not viable we believe that the spinal column is intact, so that stimulating the precentral gyrus…
Dr Bellinger: … the motor cortex…
Prof Barnyard: … should activate the alpha-motor neurons in hands, face and feet.
Dr Bellinger: Depending on which side of the gyrus you stimulate.
Prof Barnyard: We are now applying a small current to the lateral side of the gyrus and as you can see, alpha-neurons in the hands and face are active. That’s a good sign. I find this very stimulating, don’t you, Hillary?
Dr Bellinger: That’s strange. When you stimulated the donor’s brain the recipient’s hands moved and there was facial twitching.
Prof Barnyard: That’s not possible, Hillary. We haven’t transferred the brain yet. We’ll now activate the electrodes attached to the midline at the top of the gyrus, and I think we’ll see that… Good Heavens, you’re right! The recipient’s leg just moved!
Prof Barnyard: We are now going to remove the damaged brain from the recipient. As with the donor, this will require major craniotomy…
Dr Bellinger: … skull cutting …
Prof Barnyard: We’ve removed the scalp and now going to use a surgical saw to free the skull cap … which we are now removing, and… This patient has no brain!
I am the fly on the wall. They had a bit of a shock when they found that Dan Dunnitt had no brain. They dismissed it as a case of hydrocephalus, in which people function normally without a brain. They had no idea that they were putting his own brain back into his body and they congratulated themselves on the way it settled in and wasn’t rejected.
I was so fascinated that I nearly fell into the autoclave.
I am Doris. It’s so good to have Andy back again. In Dan’s body. I get the best of both worlds this way – Andy’s domineering mind in Dan’s body, which is quite well-equipped. It’s just that Dan didn’t know how to use it. He was shy and hung-up, or well-hung but too shy, depending on how you look at it.
The other nice thing is that we don’t have to hide from the neighbours any more. They think I’ve become respectable and gone back to my ex.
I am Dan’s brain. And so our story ends happily – for me, at least. I’m back in my own body and glad to be there. We’ll have no more wrangling about who’s in charge, and no more arguments about Dan’s identity and who he really is. I’m going to give up philosophising and enjoy my new life with Doris. Yes, I’m back with my faithless ex again. I enjoy the reversal. She lied to me for years about her relationship with Andy, and I was so trusting. Now she thinks she’s living him on a permanent basis – that she’s living with his brain in my body, which is the same thing as far as she’s concerned – and I’m not going to tell her otherwise. Ah, sweet revenge! She thinks she’s living with Andy when she’s really living with me. She’s back where she started and doesn’t know it – back with Dan and his not very exciting brain. Mind you, I’ve gained a lot of confidence after my travels, from Dan Dunnitt’s head to a Safecase in a Laundromat, into Andy Clock’s head and back into Dan’s again. I’ll never forget the terror I felt when I saw my own body attacking me with a knife. But what doesn’t destroy you makes you grow stronger, as they say. Which should be: what doesn’t make you weaker makes you grow stronger. Unless it doesn’t change you at all, of course. I’m more confident now and it shows in the way I deport my body. We’ve been cutting quite a dash recently.
Everything has worked out wonderfully and it’s good to be alive. And conscious. And back in my old body. I don’t want to go travelling any more.
© Dr Terry Dartnall 2004
Terry Dartnall teaches Artificial Intelligence at Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia and is widely published in AI, cognitive science and philosophy. His speculative fiction has appeared in magazines such as Ideomancer, Oceans of the Mind, Planet Magazine and Aphelion. His web page is www.cit.gu.edu.au/~terryd.
Where Am I?
Suppose your brain is transferred to someone else’s body (let’s call him ‘John’) and John’s brain is put into your body. Where are you now? Most people will say, “In John’s body.” That seems fair enough. If we want to find out where you are we can ask the bodies, and we can confirm that it is you by asking questions that only you could answer. It is sometimes said that these imaginary brain transplants are really body transplants, because you get a new body rather than a new brain. You want to be the donor rather than the recipient!
If the transplant intuition is correct, you are your brain, at least in the sense that your continuous existence depends on the continuous existence of your brain, and you go where your brain goes.
But suppose your brain is removed from your body and put into a vat, whilst being kept in radio contact with your body. Because of the radio link your brain interacts with your body as it normally does.
After the operation you are wheeled into the presence of your brain. As you look at it you do not feel that you are in the vat, looking at your body. You feel that you are in your body, looking at your brain. Do you still want to say that you are your brain, or even that you go where your brain goes?
This brain-in-the-vat story is the beginning of Daniel Dennett’s classical piece of philosophical fiction, “Where Am I?” I obviously had this story in mind when I wrote ‘I Am Dan’s Brain.’ I was also influenced by Andy Clark’s ‘A Brain Speaks,’ originally published as ‘I Am John’s Brain.’ Thanks to Professors Dennett and Clark for giving us permission to use variations of their names. T.D.
Personal Identity and Memory
In the 17th century John Locke said, “Should the soul of a prince, carrying with it the consciousness of the prince’s past life, enter and inform the body of a cobbler, as soon deserted by his own soul, everyone sees he would be the same person as the prince, accountable only for the prince’s actions.” Locke, however, did not believe that personal identity consists in the identity of an immaterial mind or soul. He believed it consists in the fact that we can consciously remember our thoughts, experiences and actions: memory is the key to personal identity.
A famous counterexample to this theory is Thomas Reid’s ‘Brave officer’ example. When he is a young man, an officer remembers being punished as a child for robbing an orchard. As an old man he remembers his exploits as a young officer but cannot remember his adventures in the orchard.
This refutes any version of the memory theory that says that personal identity consists in what we remember, but it does not refute more sophisticated versions that talk about ‘person stages.’ The memory theorist can say that the old man remembers being a young officer and the young officer remembered robbing the orchard. There is a continuity of memories, even though they cannot be accessed during a single person stage. T.D.